Friday, June 24, 2011

In favour of "rape"

I'm not really a feminist, but only because I think that a belief in equality (of all kinds) is so fundamental that you shouldn't need a special label to denote the fact that you believe in it. I also believe in eating regular meals, and no one has devised an -ism for that belief, because anyone who doesn't believe in it is clearly crazy. That's how I think about equality of gender, race and sexual orientation.

Yes, I know it's not as simple as that. In truth, we're coming from an era of inequality, and any movement that seeks to create the equality that should always have been there needs a name. Bear with me.

I don't believe in "unwanted sex" either, but not on feminist grounds. I disapprove of it as a term because it's one of the more poisonous euphemisms I've read recently (and I'm grateful to Heather Corinna for bringing it to my attention. Follow her on Twitter here and her site here. The fact that I cite her shows that I agree with her, but she's not duty-bound to agree with me).

The researchers in a much-quoted study this week made many references to "unwanted sex" in their investigation into the correlation between early sex and divorce rates. In so doing, they were pursuing the possibly respectable aim of stressing that girls who have sex in their mid-teens are not really making informed or mature choices and are under a degree of social or emotional pressure. In other words, just because a 15-year old agrees to sleep with her boyfriend, that doesn't mean she's a slut. (I have two teenage daughters myself, so of course I have nightmares about this.)

There are many problems here from a political and sociological point of view, but other people are far more qualified than me to discuss that. From the point of view of the reporter, however, I'm deeply unhappy about the term "unwanted sex". Such a term allows "engagements [that were] not completely wanted" to be lumped in with rape.

"Rape" is a short, suitably brutal word to describe one of the vilest things one human being can do to another short of murder. By accepting a wider definition of "unwanted sex", the journalist allows the rapist to hide among the larger group of men – and boys – who persuade their partners to have sex but would never dream of going ahead if they thought that consent was in any way withheld, and yet aren't sensitive enough to realise that she doesn't really want to. To use a 'shoe on the other foot' example, I recall (with some affection, I have to say), being woken from a light doze at 3am and thinking, "I've got work in the morning. Wasn't twice enough for you?" I wasn't keen at first. I was persuaded. I certainly wasn't raped.

None of this is meant to excuse the men who put undue pressure on their partners to have sex. But journalists have a duty to tell the truth, and allowing rape to sneak through under a euphemistic term such as "unwanted sex" risks making it seem less repulsive than it is. Apart from school days, when boys competed to say the most shocking things regardless of whether they believed in them, I have never met a man who said that rape was anything but vile and contemptible.

In calling it by its right name, we preserve the ugliness of rape. So, when I use the title "In favour or rape", I mean I am in favour of the word because it inspires the appropriate level of disgust.

Moral: Don't hide the truth. Don't hide from the truth. Call it like it is.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fear of meaning

I've all done it; maybe you have too, and usually with our loved ones. Talking for the sake of saying something; talking out of the fear of silence; talking to let someone know you care while not saying anything to upset them further. I do it on the phone a lot, trying to use words as a verbal hug.

Businesses do it all the time, and a prime example is the following piece of gobbledygook from Clare Lynch's Doris & Bertie, which is just about the best blog on language I've read.

Leverage analytics to drive prediction
Use predictive analytics as a decision support tool to drive a forward-looking analysis of scenarios, response effectiveness, and critical correlations that can complicate or escalate events. Better understanding of the drivers of extreme events, whether external developments or internal process interactions, can help build a robust, flexible and dynamic crisis management program. The objective for enhanced analytics is not to predict events, but to help companies develop more meaningful warning indicators, and an increased awareness of their leverage in preventing or managing ‘runaway’ crises.

In her post, she pulls it apart and then does the seemingly impossible: she turns it into a (shorter) piece that actually means something. Even better, she explains why her version works and why the original fails.

In commenting on her post, I realised that there's another angle to this. Far from being a failure, the original is in some ways a stunning success. If you forget the unimaginative, hidebound views of stuffy old traditionalists who insist that language exists solely to communicate ideas, you'll realise that there are other processes at work here. This sort of writing falls into the category I alluded to above: verbal hugs.

We usually think of words as windows through we shine light on each other’s thoughts. Paragraphs such as the one above are in fact big, fluffy double duvets (and about as transparent). Their purpose is not to enlighten the reader but wrap him and the writer together in a warm, unthreatening snugness. The only message is: “I am like you. I think like you. I talk like you. When we meet we will be wearing similar suits and complementary ties. When we do businesses together you will look good but I will reinforce, not threaten, your complacency.”

The writer here is not trying to convey any information. He is not seeking to enlighten his reader. He is striving to fit in. He is wearing a linguistic uniform. This is very important in business, but it also matters elsewhere. Who doesn't remember trying to fit in with the right crowd at school and adopting their mannerisms, clothes and above all their way of speaking?

If any actual meaning should creep into what is written, it is entirely accidental. Think of the sounds a parent makes when rubbing Bonjela on the gums of a teething baby. Like many parents, I used to say, "There, there, there." What does that mean? Nothing, and it's not supposed to. In a similar vein, I have said before that the most meaningful lyrics in the history of rock are "Awopbopaloomop awopbamboom".

There might be another purpose here: to make the simple seem complicated. If all you need to do is "analyse what’s happened in the past to help you predict what might happen in the future" … well, anyone can do that. However, if you need to "use predictive analytics as a decision support tool", then it's best to call in an expert.

Now go away and read Clare's blog. You can thank me later.
Moral: Writing sometimes exists not to express your thoughts but to hide their absence.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Extraneous syllabification is not benificient

Is this inverted purple cow an amphitheatre? I think not
Big words don't make you clever. We all know this. Nor do long sentences. But some of us just can't help ourselves.

There is a tendency among writers – and an even bigger one among broadcasters – to use longer, more technical-sounding words in an attempt to make the things they are describing more impressive. In doing so, they often choose a word with a similar but different meaning. Possibly the most common of these misused words is "epicentre".

In journalism and broadcasting, the word is usually used to mean, "centre, but in a really really centre-y sort of way that I can't describe cos I'm not very articulate". Problem is, it doesn't mean that.

I trust we all know what "centre" means. So what's an "epicentre"? Here's how the Cambridge Online Dictionary defines "epicentre":
The point on the Earth's surface directly above an earthquake or atomic explosion
You see, that's not the same as "centre". "Epi-" is the Greek word meaning "on" or "above" (as in epidermis, which is your skin). The epicentre isn't the centre: it's the accessible bit above the centre. It doesn't mean you can't use it figuratively – for instance, if the members of a secretive movement meet in a public place, then that could be an epicentre – but your figurative use has to be consistent with the actual meaning.

There are others. In a piece about the Edinburgh Fringe in today's Guardian, Andy Field refers to "Udderbelly's colossal purple cow-shaped amphitheatre". Again, here's how the Cambridge Online Dictionary defines "amphitheatre":
Udderbelly: Theatre? Yes. Amphitheatre? No
A circular or oval area of ground around which rows of seats are arranged on a steep slope, for watching plays, sports, etc. outside
I've been in the Udderbelly. It's a rectangular stage with straight seating on three sides and two corners. It's in a tent. Admittedly, it has raked seating, but that's the only way it resembles an amphitheatre. The original Greek theatre was a half-oval shape. An amphitheatre makes a complete oval resembling two theatres stuck together (the Greek "amphi" means "on both sides").

Not all theatres resemble the Greek model
Now, you can get away with talking about theatres that don't look like the Greek original because the word is now the generic term for all places where live performances take place (and, in America, movies). It is also used in the abstract, to describe any activity put on to impress (as when a friend described an unnecessary process for safe online shopping as "a piece of security theatre"). You can have the adjective "theatrical". Admittedly, you could also have the adjective "amphitheatrical", but only to describe something that physically resembles an amphitheatre (which, as I might have mentioned, the Udderbelly doesn't).

But why bother with such trifling matters as accuracy, when you can look so much cleverer saying amphitheatre instead of theatre? Except that you look like an idiot to anyone who knows about the subject. Andy Field, according to his Guardian biography, is "a freelance writer and theatre maker. He has worked for Culture Wars and Total Theatre magazine. He is a director of Forest Fringe", so he really should know better. 

This point was succinctly made in Newman and Mittelmark's How Not To Write A Novel
The short-term solution is to use a word you do know. That means a word you would comfortably use when talking to an overeducated and sarcastic friend who would not hesitate to make fun of you for misusing a word.
Did they have anyone in mind, I wonder?

Unfortunately, they later went on to say: "Sentences are exponentially more complicated than words," which shows that they have no idea what "exponentially" means.

Other than that, it's an excellent book that I'll recommend very highly to aspiring novelists. Just click on the link below to buy it. Yes, I get about five pence commission for every sale through this website, so if only about 20,000 of my 500 readers buy the book, it will just about pay for the time it took me to write this blog.

Moral: If you don't know what a word means, don't use it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Touching the voids

Aung San: talking fortune cookie
If I cite The Guardian a lot in these blogs, it’s not because I think it’s a bad paper; it’s because it’s the paper I read most. But this morning my hotel was offering free copies of The Independent On Sunday, and that’s a lot worse. 

The Indy has a front page that’s more like a magazine than a newspaper front page: no news, just a main photo with two headlines, each promoting an exclusive interview with a major figure. However, that’s not my main gripe. What really annoys me is that both interviews are terrible. 

The Brahmin of Banality
Miliband: a complete void
The first is an exclusive interview with Ed Miliband, the new leader of the UK’s opposition Labour Party (which was tossed out of power last year). Miliband got the job ahead of his more popular and talented elder brother David, and seems to have been elected purely because he didn’t antagonise any faction in the party. His appeal was that he was a blank page on which everyone could project their own image of what they wanted their party to be.

One might feel sympathy for the writer, Jane Merrick, since Miliband the politician is almost a complete void. He has nothing to say and believes nothing, but Merrick seems to have botched the interview entirely, concentrating on the effect of the leadership election on the relationship between the brothers. She gets nothing, but that doesn’t stop her writing the entire middle half of the article on this very subject, having spent the first quarter of the piece trying to summarise and interpret what meagre quotes she got. And what underwhelming quotes did she get?
“I’m not going to get into the detail of that.”
“I am not going to get into that.”
“I’m not going to get into my conversations … about it.”
In fact, most of Miliband’s quotes are negatives. On becoming leader, he says, “I wouldn’t have thought that was going to be the case,” adding for good measure: “I’m not the heir to anyone,” and “I wasn’t certain … that I wanted to become an MP.” 

This tedious, negative repetitiveness overflows into his talk of his supposed rapprochement with his brother:
“I don’t think we’ve done that [had a laugh about it] … both of us have moved on.”
“We’ve both moved on.”
“Both of us have moved on.”
“[David has] moved on, so everybody else should too.”
Merrick should have moved on as well. Finally, nearly 90 per cent of the way through the article (after an irrelevant diversion into what Miliband reads to his children in bed), Merrick gives up ploughing this fallow furrow and asks about Miliband’s “vision” for Britain. This is what she gets:
“How do we reverse the sense of national decline? [I’ve added the question mark that the subs left out.] How do we give people a sense that you can be optimistic about Britain, that the next generation can do better than the last? … What kind of country do we want to create for our kids?
Yes, after nine months in the job, the Leader of the Opposition still has no answers, only more questions, and yet he describes this flabby set of vague, meaningless questions as his “mission”.

The whole piece – which is the paper's lead article – begins by declaring, "Ed Miliband attempts today to reassert his authority over his fractured party as he warns supporters of his brother David that the Labour leader is "sticking to the mission" of returning his party to election-winning form." Yet Miliband does nothing of the sort in the interview that follows; nor is there any suggestion that he will be doing it anywhere else.

In its desperation to find some content in that hopeless exchange, the paper’s leader column proclaims, “In the interview … he talks about demanding responsibility from the rich as well as the poor.” Except that Miliband doesn’t, at least, not in the published interview. He said something along those lines in the speech he made last Monday, to which Merrick refers, but there’s nothing at all about it from the paper’s own conversation with him.

Miliband, as ever, has nothing whatsoever to say and Merrick, seemingly overawed by the honour of an exclusive interview, has totally failed to pin him down on anything.

The Buddha of Burma
The Indy’s second exclusive interview is just as bad. In fact, it’s probably worse. I didn’t have a very high opinion of Ed Miliband, but I did think highly of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s oppressed opposition leader. That respect evaporated in 1,500 words of simpering sycophancy that doubled as an advertorial for the loathsome rock band U2.

Interviewer Martin Wroe found himself double-handing with a pair of film-makers who were shooting footage to be shown on U2’s next tour. As a result, Bono and U2 get eight mentions in the article, which is rather more than once every 200 words. Aung San blathers that, in her youth (in the 1960s), all celebrities had to do was “have themselves talked about in the gossip columns”. Bono, she asserts, “really started this movement of artists getting involved in human rights and political issues.”

No, seriously. I’m actually quoting here. Between the ages of 19 and 27 (i.e. 1964-72) Aung San lived in Britain and America but seemingly never heard of musicians protesting about politics or human rights. We had to wait till the 1980s for Bono to show us the way. Someone send this woman a Bob Dylan album.

The headline (which is different in the online edition) is an awkward misquote – “You don’t know what it means to sense that we are still remembered” – while a lot of space is given to some sentimental claptrap about U2’s ‘Walk On’, which makes another activist burst into tears as he remembers a set of lyrics that are little more than a reworking of Pink Floyd’s ‘Eclipse’.

As for the rest, it’s all mystical blandness masquerading as – well, I don’t know what. Wroe describes her as “fluent, articulate and graceful”, but can you get anything from drivel such as this?
“Those of us who have followed our own conscience – that is the real freedom.”
"During my years of house arrest I've often wished that I were a composer because then I could have spent my time composing."
“We should be moving all the time, moving to bring about better change, instead of just sitting there and letting things happen the way other people who are not so desirous of good change wish them to happen.”
“I feel that we are all one, and this warms my heart.” I presume she isn’t consciously referencing the old joke about the Dalai Lama going into Pizza Hut and asking, “Can you make me one with everything?”
There are many other statements, all equally bland and some of them tediously repetitive (the word “triumph” keeps recurring), although one quote is worth repeating in full for its utterly vapid banality:
“I don’t think it’s boring to work for other people. I don’t think it’s boring to think about how you might improve the lives of other people. I don’t think altruism is boring. I don’t think faith in freedom is boring. I would like young people to understand that: that these things are not boring at all.”
Yes, indeed, not boring at all. Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be positioning herself as part-Gandhi, part secular Dalai Lama, and in the process slips from being the heroine of political freedom to being a talking fortune cookie. 

Moral: You're a journalist, for God's sake. Make your interview subjects sound interesting, or at least try.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Death to modifiers!

One of my writers has just offered the following words of ‘wisdom’.

If the banks have neither the inclination (nor the resources) to fund further ship acquisitions, future market developments could surprise in unexpected ways.
Great. I love this kind of stuff: things that surprise in unexpected ways, as opposed to things that surprise in expected – and therefore unsurprising – ways. It demonstrates how writers write in a way that sounds good but means nothing.

In fact, this sentence means so little that I had to delete half the paragraph because what’s the point of warning about surprises down the road if you don’t know what they might be? If you’re charging good money for your analysis, then you need to do better than that. It’s like putting up a roadsign with the word “Warning!” on it and nothing else.

Anyway, that’s a simple edit and one that wouldn’t elude any proofreader who was paying attention. However, it shows the way in which writers use words that feel good but mean nothing. And the easiest way they make nonsense of their writing is through modifiers – effectively adjectives and adverbs.

At the back of every proofreader’s and sub-editor’s mind is one question that will ask itself whenever an adjective presents itself: “What other kind could it be?”Ask yourself, are these adjectives strictly necessary?

Dishonest thief
Untrustworthy politician
Angry sub-editor

Adjectives are often added to nouns when those nouns don’t need modifying. Their meaning is already clear, either from the noun itself or from the context, such as when one of my container team constantly refers to the container fleet in a report about container shipping. 

Of course it’s the container fleet. What other kind could it be?

Moral: Adjectives are wonderful things. Don’t devalue the currency by over-using them.

Monday, June 13, 2011

As Marvin Gaye didn't say, "What's ongoing?"

What did we say before "ongoing" came into fashion? And when did it come into fashion? As you can see from this Google Ngram, it hardly existed before the 1960s. More to the point, should we worry?

Purists (and I'm one) are often seen as reactionary and hostile to change. But English changes more quickly and dynamically than almost any other language, as anyone who has tried to read Beowulf in the original knows, and people who are hostile to all change are hostile to the very soul of English.

But I don't embrace all change. Any change that narrows expression and promotes sloppy thinking should be resisted, and those are the grounds on which I oppose "ongoing", to the extent that the word has never been published in any piece of writing that has crossed my desk.

Firstly, it's unnecessary. The word "continuing" does the job just as well and has been with us for years, but even this is seldom needed. By inventing a word simply because you don't know the right word, you are degrading the language and entrenching your own ignorance. Buy a thesaurus. 
Take the following examples from BBC News today:
The cost of ongoing medical treatment and repatriation can quickly rack up.

At the heart of the documentary is an ongoing argument about British freedom and shifts in the political, musical and cultural landscape.

We discuss the ongoing situation in Syria.

Sonae has apologised to local people over the ongoing smoke coming out of the plant. 
In each of these sentences, the word "ongoing" can simply be deleted with no loss of meaning whatsoever. Don't these writers know what the present tense means? (The last example is awful in other ways, but this is the BBC so we shouldn't expect too much.)

Secondly, and more importantly, the popularity of "ongoing" is a symptom of timid writing, of which there are two kinds. The first is where extra words are poured into a sentence with the (usually unconscious) aim of diluting the meaning. "Ongoing" is used as a standard adjective that adds no meaning to a sentence and occasionally adds a meaning that the writer did not intend. I recall a traffic report on the radio that stated, "The A40 is closed due to an ongoing accident," as if cars were still piling into each other in super-slow-motion as the reporter was speaking.*

The other timid use is when the sentence has been twisted around and has to be untwisted before "ongoing" is deleted (as it always should be), as in:
Inquiries by Lambeth officers into the circumstances of the incident are ongoing, and detectives from Trident have been informed. Guardian, 7 July 2011
Before we disentangle the sentence, let's ask why this displays cowardice by the writer (in this case a press officer for the Metropolitan Police, quoted by the Press Association). If we say that something is ongoing, then we are spared from taking the terrifyingly bold step of saying that an identifiable person or organisation is actually doing something. It's the same effect as using the passive voice, which we were all warned about in school.

We separate cause from effect and create vagueness where there should be precision. We do this because, consciously or otherwise, we want to avoid ruffling the feathers of our sources, and this far outweighs our duty to provide a service to our readers. This is a contemptible attitude for any writer. If you have ever done it then you should be ashamed of yourself – sufficiently ashamed to vow never to do it again. That's why I'm here: to help you. Think of it as a public service.

And yet our press officer has failed even in that pathetic ambition, because in his mealy-mouthed way he has identified who is doing the investigating, as if there was ever any doubt. This shows how dangerous this phraseology has become, because it has become house style for corporate and government communication. Blandness and vagueness are prized above all else, such that they do it even when they don't need to.

So what should the spokesman have said? Since the only purpose of the statement is to tell the public what is happening, why not simply do that? He could have said:
"Lambeth officers are investigating the killing." 
That's six words instead of 12. It's clear, uncontroversial and factual. It says what is being done and who is doing it. It's not particularly graceful, but it lacks the tortured ugliness of the original. I have also replaced the vague and euphemistic "incident" with "killing". I'm inclined to leave the rest of the sentence unchanged even though it uses a passive voice, because it doesn't matter who told the detectives from Operation Trident. The important thing is that they were told.

Since the journalist at the Press Association can't tinker with the quote, was there anything he or she could have done? I wouldn't have used the full quote, perhaps writing:
The spokesmen said that Lambeth officers were investigating, and added, "Detectives from Trident have been informed."
There's an even simpler option:
The spokesmen added, "Detectives from Trident have been informed."
After all, it's not really news that police officers investigate when a man is shot dead. It might be news that Operation Trident is involved – depending on your view on reporting race in crime stories – because this is the Metropolitan Police's way of saying what they can't say directly: that this was a black man shot by a black gang.

Another recent example is notable for its awkwardness of expression:

Winning championships was a habit many on Merseyside believed to be unbreakable but little did they know that, 21 years later, the wait for the 19th would still be ongoing. (Louise Taylor, Guardian, 16 May 2011)

Doesn't the awkwardness leap out of the page? It would have been so much more natural to write, "21 years later, they would still be waiting for the 19th." Again, "ongoing" is used to twist the words into an unnatural order and divorce the verb from its subject, so much so that the writer feels she can omit the subject altogether.

So that's my objection to "ongoing". It strips sentences of their cohesion and power, while enshrining vagueness of expression at the expense of directness. Winston Churchill could have said, "The fight will be ongoing. There will be no surrender." He didn't. He said, "We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender." We are left in no doubt as to who will be doing the fighting: we shall.

Reporters should use language to convey the truth, not disguise it. 

Moral: If the fight against sloppy language is ongoing, then who is doing the fighting?

*I can't provide a citation for this, but it was definitely BBC London radio. The road might not have been the A40.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How To Lie With Statistics

In February last year the following request from one of my closest friends popped into my inbox:

My daughter who is a journalist at the Observer posted this request on Facebook. She needs people with real jobs (ie my friends!). If you fancy doing this, email her.

"Hi not-too-meedja-ish friends. Care to pen 150 words on a book related to your profession/passion that changed your life? it's for the new review section in the Observer. message me! x"

I did a worthy-ish review, which was too worthy as it turned out. So I tried again, this time with a bit less formality. "Perfect", Hermione said, which is nice because everyone needs a bit of encouragement.

Newspapers being what they are, the piece never got published, so I thought I'd offer my contribution on the blog since I think it's a book that everyone should read:
I've never been able to spot when someone is lying to me, which explains my disastrous love life. So when I saw Darrell Huff's "How To Lie With Statistics" (1954) on my father's bookshelves, shortly after landing a job on a shipping magazine, it looked like essential reading. Most people don't understand numbers: their eyes glide over them without gripping, like car tyres on an icy road, enabling advertisers, PRs and governments to shore up their arguments with meaningless percentages, skewed graphs and twisted surveys that often go unquestioned. I do question them, and so I can (to use Huff's phrase) "avoid learning a lot of things that ain't so". After reading Huff I could not merely weave a cute story but also see the flaws in other people's. So I swapped the reporter's beat for the subeditor's desk before becoming Editor and now Editorial Director at a consultancy that hurls statistics at a hungry industry.

The review is not as good as I'd like, partly because I was writing to a specific brief and partly because I take word counts seriously. There's a wall in my house that to any visitor looks blank but in fact is filled with my fantasy collection of the shrunken heads of people who said, "I know you asked for 200 words but I couldn't do it in less than 2,500. You can cut it down, can't you?" Trust me, they died in extreme agony.

Moral: Statistics might be facts, but that doesn't prevent them becoming the building blocks of fantasy palaces that make Disneyland look like a concrete outhouse.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The beast of the number

DCLXVI: simple, no?
If my long-unplayed Iron Maiden album is to be believed, the Number of the Beast is 666. That number is a lot more catchy than when this piece of superstition was first cooked up, when the Beast’s number was DCLXVI.

Without Arabic numerals, mathematics would still be in the Dark Ages. However, writers need to be extremely careful when using them in prose, and there is a very good reason for this: readers do not understand numbers.

“Hang on,” I hear you say, “I understand numbers perfectly well.” Yes, you do, and so do I and so do our readers, when we are doing mathematics. Working out offers in the supermarket, checking your payslip or calculating what 20 degrees Celsius is in Fahrenheit are all works of mathematics. Reading prose, however, is a completely different activity and our minds work in different ways. One of my many aphorisms when I was a magazine editor was, “Don’t give me facts, tell me a story.”

If I read a sentence saying, “Rates moved from $21,834 per day to $21,688,” I seldom comprehend whether rates have gone up or down. I need to read it a second time, after I have subconsciously switched my brain from ‘narrative mode’ to ‘data mode’.

Anyone who has ever driven on icy roads knows the feeling: even when the car is going straight, it loses traction as it passes over a patch of ice. The brain does the same thing when it encounters numerals in prose: the brain loses traction. To the casual reader, a rate rise of 28% looks very much like a rise of 82%. To say rates rose by a quarter or nearly doubled is less precise, but actually conveys more meaning.

It’s hard to eliminate numbers from your writing entirely, especially if your job is to analyse markets. So there’s no way to remove the numbers from this sentence, as seen in a report I edited today:
Natural gas prices fell from a high of $13.53/MMBtu in October 2005 to a low of $3.31/MMBtu (in August 2009), before recovering slightly to $4.24/MMBtu in April 2011.
At least the writer has done almost everything he can for the reader. He has described the change using words. Prices “fell … from … to … recovering slightly”. A reader who doesn’t understand numbers would still get a sense of what had happened. We could improve it by using words to give a sense of how drastically they fell, such as “plunged”, although one has to be careful about using such melodramatic, tabloid language in this sort of writing.

Look at the following sentence, which is not a particularly dreadful example:
On the benchmark TD3 route, average earnings during the quarter plunged by 24.6% to $20,767pd

What, might you ask, does the reader gain from that fraction of a percent? How is his understanding improved by having to process this extra piece of data? If you have to put numbers in, then two significant figures is about as much as the brain can absorb.

This reaches a low point in paragraphs such as the following, which besmirched my computer screen a couple of years ago:
HPH is ranked at the market leader, with a throughput of 66.3 million teu, up from 60.9 million teu in 2006, and a global share of 13.3%. APM Terminals is in second position, with 60.3 million teu (12.1%) followed by PSA with 54.7 million teu (11%), DP World with 43 million teu (8.7%) and COSCO, which moved 27.3 million teu, and has a market share of 5.5%.

This sort of information should only go in a table (if the exact figures are important) or a graph (if the general relationship between the statistics is what matters). Most readers will come away from reading that sentence without learning anything from it, so what was the point of writing it? Littering your prose with abbreviations only helps to make the whole mess unreadable.

Anything that makes a reader stop and read again is a mark of failure, unless they read it twice simply for the pleasure of reading the beauty of your prose. Chances are, you’re not a good enough writer for that to happen. I know I’m not.
Moral: Prose is for telling stories, not delivering data
PS. My apologies for the strange formatting here. If I indent the quotes, Blogger publishes an old draft of the post. Strange creature, Blogger.